As Florida lawmakers face more pressure on guns, is the NRA up for the fight?

‘We’re going to find out at some point in the future,’ one Republican said.
Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. [News Service of Florida]
Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. [News Service of Florida] [ News Service of Florida ]
Published Sept. 16, 2019|Updated Sept. 16, 2019

Florida lawmakers returning to Tallahassee on Monday will confront mounting expectations that they do something about the wave of gun violence and summer of mass shootings across the country.

Gun reform activists are organized and well-funded. Retailers are banning guns from stores and pulling ammo off shelves. Poll after poll shows Americans think it should be harder to buy a firearm and a majority think certain weapons, the ones most used in extreme acts of violence, should be banned outright.

But there is another factor that could determine how far lawmakers are willing to go to address gun safety: The weakened state of the National Rifle Association. At every level, the gun lobby group is in crisis over its finances and its leadership. Meanwhile, its standing with the public is lower than at any point in recent memory.

The organization’s troubles could reverberate more in Florida than perhaps anywhere else. For decades, the NRA and its Florida lobbyist and leader Marion Hammer have shaped Florida into one of the country’s most gun-friendly states, wielding power over the GOP-controlled government with an almost mythical strength.

The NRA’s problems have extended to Hammer, who is also dogged by accusations of financial malfeasance stemming from loans she received from Unified Sportsmen of Florida, a nonprofit she founded that’s an affiliate of the NRA. She has denied any wrongdoing.

With so much turmoil, could the NRA and Hammer be losing its grip on Florida?

“We’re going to find out at some point in the future,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa. “Maybe this year, maybe after that.”

Lee will lead a Senate workshop this week to address “mass attacks and targeted violence.” Lawmakers on the panel will examine ways to improve the information flow between U.S. Department of Justice and Florida law enforcement, mental health options, threat assessment and racial terrorism. And, they will look at Florida’s gun laws.

It is a step not many expected from a party known, and often criticized, for responding to mass shootings with “thoughts and prayers." But after a combined 31 people died in August shootings in El Paso and Dayton within 13 hours, Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, called for a comprehensive review of the issues surrounding these acts of violence.

In doing so, lawmakers will confront this reality: Most of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings since Columbine in 1999 have involved an AR-15 or similar semi-automatic weapons. Odessa. Dayton. El Paso. Pittsburgh. San Bernadino. Las Vegas. Newtown. Orlando. Parkland. The weapon of choice was the common factor in each deadly massacre.

Behind the scenes, rank-and-file Republicans are mad that Galvano, who is termed out next year, would put this issue on the table in an election year. To that, Galvano recently told the Tampa Bay Times: “I’m not afraid to go in some areas that create some debate.”

Not many in the Republican Party of Florida were interested in taking on the NRA before Feb. 14, 2018. But that day a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, armed with an AR-15, killed 17 students and staff.

Then-Gov. Rick Scott lobbied enough Republicans and most Democrats to raise the gun ownership age to 21 and approve new restrictions on firearms. Florida also passed a red-flag law that is now a model for Congress to consider.

“It definitely broke the seal,” said Lee, a lawmaker whose tenure in Tallahassee spans 22 years.

Since then, the activists on competing sides of the debate have gone in reverse directions. Gun safety groups, like March for Our Lives, Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, boasted electoral and legislative successes across the country in 2018. In Florida, Ban Assault Weapons NOW has raised $1.7 million for a 2020 ballot referendum to prohibit certain semi-automatic firearms.

Meanwhile, the NRA is reeling. Internal fighting led to the ousting of president Oliver North. Revelations the organization has spent lavishly on its chief executive Wayne LaPierre have damaged its reputation even among supporters. The NRA’s grim financial picture resulted in a production shutdown of NRATV, its online media portal for gun enthusiasts.

Hammer, who did not respond to requests for interviews, is a former president of the NRA and sits on its board of directors. The scandal has increasingly shifted her attention from Florida to the turmoil at the national organization’s Virginia headquarters.

Gun activists believe they are winning. Parkland survivor David Hogg on Twitter responded to a recent story on the NRA’s troubles by declaring the organization’s letters now stand for “Not Relevant Anymore." Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts told the Times: “The NRA should have learned a long time ago that hate mongering has made its brand toxic. This news shows it’s not just morally bankrupt, it’s financially bankrupt." Earlier this month, San Francisco declared the NRA a “domestic terrorist organization.”

In Florida, however, things are different. The state House of Representatives is solidly Republican and Speaker of the House José Olivia has not matched Galvano’s call to action. Gov. Ron DeSantis as a candidate last year said he would have vetoed the post-Parkland gun package and more recently he has echoed other Republicans in blaming shootings on mental health.

Hammer has previously denied her organization is in trouble and said it isn’t shrinking from the fight. In recent years, she has threatened or filed lawsuits against her critics, pulling them into costly legal battles. She still has her scorecards that grade Republicans on their loyalty to the Second Amendment. Cross her and lawmakers face the wrath of a network of supporters that she can activate with a blast email.

Last year, state Sen. Jason Pizzo wanted to ban teens from posting pictures of firearms on social media, a catalyst for violence in his Miami district. The Democrat met with Hammer to craft a bill he hoped the NRA could support.

But Hammer ultimately backed out, concerned the bill would violate the rights of “of law-abiding minors to facilitate enforcement actions against young teenagers, who are probably gang-bangers,” according to emails obtained by the Times in a records request. Not long after, Pizzo’s office started receiving hate mail and death threats. He was the subject of hostile YouTube videos created by gun advocates. His staff was doxed. The Senate Sergeant of Arms was notified, a Senate spokeswoman confirmed.

Pizzo ultimately pulled the bill. “I didn’t want to keep my staff at risk,” he said.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said Democrats are playing a “long game” focused beyond the legislative session to winning elections. A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll found 83 percent of Americans favor background checks on firearm purchases at gun shows or other private sales and 57 percent would outright ban the sale of semi-automatic assault guns.

Corporations have tried to appeal to Republicans’ business sense to persuade action. Others are taking steps on their own. Walmart has removed ammo from its shelves and Publix recently requested customers not bring firearms to its stores. Still, many Florida Republicans are so far unmoved by the public pressure.

“Populism is a plague on the republic,” said state Rep. James Grant, a Tampa Republican who leads the House subcommittee on criminal justice. “We have to be responsive to our constituents, we have to be listening to them, but this era of populism ... it sets up a tragic pathway forward.”

Lee is also skeptical that lawmakers in Tallahassee can be swayed that anything they do will make a dent in gun violence. But it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try, he said.

“There comes a time in our society that public opinion consolidates so much around an issue that a representative democracy can no longer represent in denial,” Lee said. “It will move or it will get replaced.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this reporter.